Cambridge Analytica Changed Elections Forever
The 2016 US presidential election changed political campaigns forever.
A political operative named Steve Bannon (who later became an official advisor in the Trump White House) obtained funding from a billionaire, Robert Mercer (a supporter of several major candidates) to invest in a company run by some information technology scientists and psychologists in England. The purpose of this Cambridge Analytica was to use data about individual voters, collected through everyday use of social media, to target them with custom advertisements. As of this post, Cambridge Analytica still claims to have "5,000 data points (distinct pieces of information) on over 230 million American voters".
In one of the most effective advertising campaigns ever, millions of average Americans were manipulated by media specifically designed to appeal their personal beliefs and emotions through Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Yet voters knew nothing about how the messages were created, who created them, and sometimes did not even realize they were sponsored advertisements.
Hearings were held in the US and England where both Cambridge Analytica and American social media companies were criticized. Criminal charges might be filed for sharing these tools with Russians to help them interfere in the election, or with the official Trump campaign as unreported contributions exceeding current legal limits. But any American superPAC can legally use Cambridge Analytica’s services today without limits and can start their own operations to do the same thing. This will become the new norm for superPAC tactics.
If laws are ever written to prevent this, the best they can do is limit collection and use of social media data. These laws will be weak and easy to sidestep given that the legal business model of almost every service on the Internet requires use of citizen data. Illegal hacking of such data is also commonplace. Beyond use of data, any restrictions on targeted and customized superPAC advertisements will be unconstitutional in accordance with the Citizens United decision.
CFR28 anticipated this. Subsection 2.3 disallows independent political advertisements where “the costs of producing” them is more than the Section 1 limit (currently about $440). So paying for social media data, targeting algorithms and custom messages will clearly exceed that limit. And these messages will fall within CFR28’s definition of advertising because they are “designed for audiences to witness unintentionally or without seeking the message”.
“The limit shall apply to all the costs of producing and distributing messages about candidates that are designed for audiences to witness unintentionally or without seeking the message. The costs of no other messages about candidates shall be limited by this amendment.”
CFR28 stops Cambridge Analytica type ads at the point of delivery. And violations will be easy to spot because…they are advertisements. Messages designed to influence thousands of people will be very difficult to hide.
Over the last one hundred years, advertising technology has evolved to become the most sophisticated psychological tool available to candidates. Yet, they are the shallowest, most deceptive, fear mongering and anger provoking form of political messaging. So funding them is not only an avenue of big money special influence, they stoke artificial animosity between us. It’s past time for us to adapt our Constitution to modern messaging technology while preserving free speech. The Framers of our Constitution would expect nothing less.
Michael J. Kyvik